On Sunday night, 60 Minutes featured an interview with Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, It was a hard-hitting, but engaging, fair and largely positive portrayal. While certain aspects of the interview were over-hyped and over-stated — like the assertions that U.S. Catholics look to the Archbishop of New York as the “American Pope” and that Archbishop Dolan is a serious candidate for the real papacy in the next conclave — Safer was on safer ground when he speculated that the American bishops elected Dolan as their conference president last November because they believed the jovial, garrulous and eloquent Big Apple prelate is the best man the U.S. Church has for the double mission of restoring the hope of besieged Catholics and presenting a compelling image of the Church to non-Catholics after the terrible sins and scandal of the clergy sexual abuse crisis.
Safer predictably launched several salvos about the scandals. Archbishop Dolan responded first by describing the vomitous horror felt by so many Catholics at what the scandals show and signify: “When you think of what happened, both that a man who proposes to act in the name of God would have abused an innocent, young person, and that some bishops would have, in a way, countenanced that by reassigning abusers, that’s nothing less than hideous, that’s nothing less than nauseating.” He said that the meetings he has had with those who have suffered sexual abuse by priests have left an indelible image. “Those were some of the more difficult, wrenching, touching moments in my life. Some of them were terribly painful and did not go well. Others I remember with gratitude. Praying together. Crying together. Those were very powerful moments that you don’t forget.” When asked if he thought the crisis was over, Archbishop Dolan replied, “In some ways, I don’t want it to be over because this was such a crisis in the Catholic Church that in a way we don’t want to get over it too easily. This needs to haunt us.”
At the same time, Archbishop Dolan said that that haunting has spurred the Church as a whole, and bishops in particular, to action. “The second story” about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, he asserted, “is the Church’s reaction” after the revelations came to light. “I think [it] has been good. It’s been strong. It’s been rigorous.” That part of the story, the Archbishop implied, does not get nearly the amount of ink as the scandals themselves have. As terrible as the undeniable evil of widespread episcopal malfeasance was, he suggested that the U.S. bishops, beginning in Dallas in 2002, have shown true signs of repentance, creating a culture that not only is totally intolerant of abuse, but has fostered protocols and procedures that have made the Catholic Church what it always should have been: a leader in the protection of children.
Archbishop Dolan has been vigorous in trying to implement and proclaim this second part of the story. He’s done so in homilies, talks, interviews, private and public meetings, and conversations with those inside and outside the Church. He has perhaps never done it quite so powerfully as he did in last Friday on his blog, when he described a one-on-one encounter he had on March 11 in the Denver airport.
A forty-something year-old man approached and asked whether he was a Catholic priest. “Sure am. Nice to meet you,” the Archbishop replied, extending his hand. The interlocutor refused to shake it. Instead he scoffed, “I was raised a Catholic and now, as a father of two boys, I can’t look at you or any other priest without thinking of a sexual abuser.”
Such insults have become somewhat common to priests who have the guts to dress in clerical garb in public places, but no matter how accustomed a priest becomes to such barbs, being viewed as a child molester rather than an ambassador of Christ never loses its existential sting. Archbishop Dolan candidly confessed he quickly weighed various human and supernatural options about how to respond: “Yell at him? Cuss him out? Apologize? Deck him? Express understanding?”
Archbishop Dolan eventually replied, “I’m sure sorry you feel that way.” He decided to see, however, if he could cut through the man’s prejudice: “Let me ask you, do you automatically presume a sexual abuser when you see a Rabbi or Protestant minister?” “Not at all,” the man said. “How about when you see a coach, or a boy scout leader, or a foster parent, or a counselor, or physician?,” the prelate continued. “Of course not!,” the man retorted. “What’s all that got to do with it?” “A lot,” replied Dolan, “because each of those professions has as high a percentage of sexual abuse, if not even higher, than that of priests.” “Well, that may be,” the man countered, but the Church is the only group that knew it was going on, did nothing about it, and kept transferring the perverts around.”
“You obviously never heard the stats on public school teachers,” the Archbishop observed, debunking a ubiquitous but false assumption about abuse in the Church versus in society as a whole. “In my home town of New York City alone, experts say the rate of sexual abuse among public school teachers is ten times higher than that of priests, and these abusers just get transferred around.”
Dolan then took the risk of imitating the prophet Nathan’s method in bringing David to conversion by helping the king to put himself in another’s shoes. “Pardon me for being so blunt, but you sure were with me, so, let me ask: When you look at yourself in a mirror, do you see a sex abuser?” “What the hell are you talking about?,” the man protested. “Sadly,” Archbishop Dolan answered, “studies tell us that most children sexually abused are victims of their own fathers or other family members.” The man had no response. “So, I tell you what,” Dolan proposed. “When I look at you, I won’t see a sex abuser, and I would appreciate the same consideration from you.”
A little later, at the baggage claim, the man picked up the conversation, “Well then, why do we only hear this garbage about you priests?” “We priests wonder the same thing,” Archbishop Dolan replied. “I’ve got a few reasons if you’re interested.” After the man nodded affirmatively, Dolan candidly postulated three explanations.
“For one, we priests deserve the more intense scrutiny, because people trust us more as we dare claim to represent God, so, when one of us do it – even if only a tiny minority of us ever have — it is more disgusting. Two, I’m afraid there are many out there who have no love for the Church, and are itching to ruin us. This is the issue they love to endlessly scourge us with. And, three, I hate to say it [but] there’s a lot of money to be made in suing the Catholic Church, while it’s hardly worth suing any of the other groups I mentioned before.”
Archbishop Dolan’s triple theory deserves pondering by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. He says that the Church should be held to a higher standard — just not treated with a double-standard. He also courageously stated the obvious, that there are certain people who hate the Church as well as others with financial motives who selectively sue the Church while not touching, for example, public school districts where abuse is far more common and institutional responses have been just as horrendous as in the Church prior to 2002. To say this is not to minimize the evil of the abuse in the Catholic Church or to be unsympathetic in any way toward those who have suffered abuse, but it is to be honest about the dynamics of the coverage of the evil of abuse in the Church while it is largely ignored everywhere else. One of the reasons why the “second part of the story” of the Church’s response to abuse hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves has been because of an unholy alliance between those who are profiting from suing the Church and those in the secular media whose radical social and moral agenda profits when the Church’s moral authority is undermined. What else would explain, for example, why accusations of abuse in the Catholic Church from decades years ago generally garner front page status while fresh allegations of abuse against other religious leaders or public officials are often buried deep within editions?
Archbishop Dolan’s Denver encounter had a happy ending. After he grabbed his luggage, the 40-something year-old man extended his hand, which he had refused to offer before. “Thanks,” the Archbishop said as he shook it. “Glad I met you.” “You know, I am thinking of the great priests I knew as a kid,” the man replied. “Shouldn’t judge all you guys because of the horrible sins of a few.”
It would be nice to know whether this man responded with hope when he saw the feisty, friendly and forgiving priest he insulted at the airport described positively by Morley Safer last Sunday as the new face of the U.S. Catholicism.
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